Washington — President Donald Trump used variations of the word “sovereign” 21 times during Tuesday’s 42-minute speech to the U.N. General Assembly, driving home his belief that countries, not international institutions like the U.N., will and should determine the fate of the world by pursuing their own best interests.
The speech offered the most fleshed-out definition yet of the Trump doctrine, a style of big-power nationalism that the president and his advisers have also labeled “principled realism” and “America First.” It brushed aside decades of American policy in favor of an approach that was dominant in the 1940s and 1950s.
“The nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” Trump declared. “Our success,” he said, “depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world.”
The speech’s emphasis on nationalism was consistent with Trump’s campaign themes, but its assertive view of the U.S. role in the world broke sharply with some campaign rhetoric that suggested a more isolationist path.
It contrasted even more directly with the foreign policy approaches of two predecessors.
Gone was former President Barack Obama’s focus on climate change and human rights, as well as his concern with the limitations of U.S. military force and emphasis on international organizations.
Instead, the speech featured a denunciation of Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran and a repeated emphasis on the need for the U.S. to consider its own citizens before those of other nations.
“You really are seeing ‘America First’ campaign rhetoric being turned into a global strategy,” said Frederick Kempe, the president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
But the speech also drew a sharp contrast with the foreign policy approach of the last Republican president, George W. Bush, who justified his administration’s invasion of Iraq in part by emphasizing the hope that removing dictatorial regimes in the Middle East would lead to the spread of democracy.
“The defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom,” Bush declared in one of his main foreign policy speeches.
Trump, by contrast, downplayed the idea that the U.S. should intervene to spread democratic systems worldwide.
“We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government,” Trump said. “But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”
As the speech showed, Trump accepts that rival powers like China and Russia will pursue their own goals, which will often run afoul of American values or even global norms. He treats relationships with those countries as transactional, aimed at serving security or economic goals. He thanked both Moscow and Beijing for help with sanctions against North Korea and avoided any criticism of either by name, giving only oblique references to instability in Ukraine and the South China Sea.
Yet even as Trump preached a live-and-let-live philosophy with America’s most powerful rivals, he made exceptions for weaker ones. He made clear that his respect for sovereignty does not cover the behavior of smaller countries that he considers to be “rogue regimes,” employing his most bellicose rhetoric to threaten them with destruction and belittle their leaders. He directly and at length denounced North Korea, Iran and Venezuela and offered shorter criticism of Cuba.
Despite the audience of global leaders, the criticism of Venezuela and Cuba, in particular, were among several nods Trump made to his domestic political base. He branded North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket man on a suicide mission” as if he were insulting him during a campaign rally, called out “loser terrorists” and boasted that “the United States has done very well since Election Day last November 8th.”
Trump’s address left some in his audience filled with misgivings.
“This was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience,” Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom told the BBC.
Europeans who sit in Trump’s nationalistic camp, however, were gleeful. Nigel Farage, an enthusiastic proponent of “Brexit,” the vote last year for Britain to depart the European Union, tweeted: “Trump’s UK approval ratings will go up significantly after this UN speech.”
Trump’s speech rejected Bush’s argument that the best path to security involves promoting U.S.-style democratic systems around the world. But a bigger feature of the Trump foreign policy is a direct assault on Obama.
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